UK cabinet minister Jack Straw ignored advice that Iraq invasion was illegal

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

File photo of Straw in 2005
Image: US Department of Defense.

The Iraq Inquiry in London has revealed that United Kingdom justice secretary Jack Straw ignored the advice of Sir Michael Wood, the Foreign Office's most senior legal adviser until his resignation in 2006, that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal under international law. This is the first time that Wood has publicly expressed an opinion on the war.

Wood advised Straw, then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, that invading Iraq without the backing of the United Nations Security Council in the form of a specific mandate—which the resolution the government used to support the war lacked—would "amount to the crime of aggression", to which Straw responded that he was being "dogmatic and international law was pretty vague". Wood disputes this, saying, "Obviously there are some areas of international law that can be quite uncertain. This, however, turned exclusively on the interpretation of a specific text and it is one on which I think that international law was pretty clear."

I considered that the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law

—Sir Michael Wood

He says that it was unprecedented for the government to ignore his advice, and told the inquiry that he "considered that the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law," since the Security Council had not met to approve the use of force, nor to agree that Iraq was committing a "material breach" of existing disarmament resolutions. He believed that regime change was the reason for the British interest in the nation, and that it was not a valid reason for war. He told the inquiry, "I made it clear that, in my view, the draft that they were working toward did not authorize the use of force without a further decision of the Security Council". Recently declassified letters prove that Wood raised these concerns directly with Jack Straw.

In one of these letters, dated January 24, 2003, Wood said that the "UK cannot lawfully use force in Iraq in ensuring compliance" with UN resolutions (including resolution 1441, which gave Saddam Hussein a "final opportunity" to comply with the UN's mandates on weapons of mass destruction by November 2002). In his reply, Straw "noted", but "did not accept" Wood's advice. Straw said he was "as committed as anyone to international law and its obligations". He also said that "it is an uncertain field. In this case, the issue is an arguable one, capable of honestly and reasonably held differences of view." He said he wanted a new UN resolution "for political reasons", but said that there was a "strong case" that existing resolutions would "provide a sufficient basis in international law to justify military action".

Do you think the war in Iraq was illegal?

Instead of following Wood's advice, government ministers used the advice of Lord Goldsmith, who was then the Attorney General for England and Wales. Goldsmith—who is scheduled to appear before the Inquiry this Wednesday—advised Straw that a second UN resolution would not be required to invade, based on a series of UN resolutions reaching back to the end of the Gulf War, despite having told the prime minister—only then days before—to wait for another UN resolution, the passing of which they had pushed other Security Council members for in the weeks running up to the invasion. Wood makes it clear, however, that the final decision regarding the legality of war lay with the Attorney General, rather than with himself.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, was told that there were concerns about how the decision was made among the Foreign Office's senior legal advisors. Elizabeth Wilmshurst, then Deputy Legal Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, resigned in protest only days before the invasion. She criticised the decision-making process for its lack of transparency, and called it "lamentable". She also called the fact that Goldsmith gave his opinion only days before the invasion "extraordinary".

Michael Wood's statement is the final nail in the coffin of the case for a legal war

—Ed Davey

Wood said that Straw had "often been advised things were unlawful and gone ahead anyway and won in the courts" when he was home secretary. Last week, Straw—when questioned by the inquiry—called the decision to support the war a "profoundly difficult political and moral dilemma", and said it was the "most difficult" decision of his entire career. Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey called Wood's statement "the final nail in the coffin of the case for a legal war." He asks if the advice reached then prime minister Tony Blair or Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, "And if not, why not?"

the mistake in the war was not to do the reconstruction and plan it in the way that was necessary

—Gordon Brown

Wood's statement is expected to cause problems for Tony Blair when he appears before the inquiry on Friday. The war has provoked protests, and much outrage among politicians who believe that Blair was wrong to support then United States President George W. Bush by sending 45,000 British soldiers—179 of whom died in combat—to fight in Iraq. The Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, is due to appear before the inquiry on Friday, and Gordon Brown, the current prime minister, is scheduled before the general election (which is expected to occur in May). Brown said yesterday that he "think[s] the mistake in the war was not to do the reconstruction and plan it in the way that was necessary so that Iraq could recover quickly after Saddam Hussein fell," and is expected to come under fire from the inquiry, which he himself set up, for his role in the war.


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